The first practice session of the 2017 Autobacs Super GT Series was held under cloudy skies at a damp Okayama International Circuit, which soon gave way to partial sunshine and a drying track.
The gradually improving conditions saw fast-paced changes at the top of the leaderboards, but in the end, the Lexus LC500s continued their dominance in the GT500 category, by sweeping the top four positions – led by the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 of Yuji Tachikawa and Hiroaki Ishiura.
It was a similar story in GT300, as Mercedes-AMG GT3s scored a 1-2 in Saturday practice, led by the #4 Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG of Nobuteru Taniguchi and Tatsuya Kataoka.
The session began at 9:00 AM JST, with morning showers and fog making teams start the session on wet tyres.
It took roughly a half-hour for a dry line to form, but with the sun peeking out through the clouds and the rain having stopped before the practice began, it wouldn’t be long before the teams started to regain the speed on the newly-resurfaced 3.7 kilometer circuit.
Mid-way through the session, the red flag came out as both the #35 Arto 86 MC 101 (Nattavude Charoensukhawatana/Nattapong Horthongkum) and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8 LMS (Richard Lyons/Masataka Yanagida) stopped on track, the former after Nattapong went off course at the Hairpin Corner (Turn 5), the latter after what is originally believed to be a driveline issue during Lyons’ stint.
With the red flag out, the #64 Epson Modulo NSX-GT (Bertrand Baguette/Kosuke Matsuura) was a surprising leader in GT500, its Dunlop tyres excelling in the mixed-weather conditions. Takahiro Sasaki of Toyota Racing Development (TRD) mentioned that the Honda NSX-GT would excel in the wet – which they did, but as the track dried out, the Lexus fleet began to show their strength.
With twenty minutes to go, Yuji Tachikawa had the #38 ZENT Cerumo LC500 on top with a 1:19.301. In the final ten minutes of the session, the three-time GT500 champion improved to a 1:18.917, and then a 1:18.600 – to secure the fastest time in Saturday practice.
Tachikawa’s best time was four-tenths quicker than the fastest time in Saturday practice last year, and just under a half-second off the current GT500 lap record.
Second-fastest was the #36 au TOM’s LC500 (Kazuki Nakajima*/James Rossiter) with a 1:18.882. The returning Nakajima was the first to go under the 1 minute, 20 second threshhold as conditions improved.
Third quickest was the other TOM’s car #37 KeePer TOM’s LC500 (Ryo Hirakawa*/Nick Cassidy) with a 1:18.926, while the defending GT500 champions, the #1 Denso Kobelco SARD LC500 (Heikki Kovalainen/Kohei Hirate*), went fourth-quickest with a 1:18.983, to give Lexus and Bridgestone a clean sweep of the top four.
Yokohama Advan runners were fifth and sixth, representing the best of the bunch from Nissan and Honda. The #24 Forum Engineering Advan GT-R (Daiki Sasaki/J.P. de Oliveira*) was sixth-tenths off the fastest time of Tachikawa, but the Brazilian’s best time was good enough for fifth.
Sixth place and best of the Hondas was the #16 Motul Mugen NSX-GT (Hideki Mutoh*/Daisuke Nakajima) with a 1:19.269, which edged out the Bridgestone-clad Hondas of the #8 ARTA NSX-GT (Tomoki Nojiri*/Takashi Kobayashi) and the #100 Raybrig NSX-GT (Naoki Yamamoto*/Takuya Izawa) in seventh and eighth.
Neither of the Michelin-clad Nissan GT-Rs even broke into the sub-1:20 range, with defending Okayama race winners, the #23 Motul Autech NISMO GT-R (Tsugio Matsuda/Ronnie Quintarelli*) only able to finish twelfth, and the #46 S Road Craftsports GT-R (Satoshi Motoyama/Katsumasa Chiyo*) fifteenth and last in GT500. The Dunlop-clad Epson NSX-GT would slot in between them in thirteenth overall.
The Mercedes-AMG GT3s were strong in their Japanese debut at Okayama last season, finishing first and second. In Saturday practice, it was another 1-2 for the Silver Arrows, led by the Goodsmile Hatsune Miku AMG on Yokohama tyres.
For a brief moment in time, as the track was drying out and none of the GT500 cars were doing fast laps on slicks, Tatsuya Kataoka had the #4 Hatsune Miku AMG third-fastest outright!
In the end, co-driver Nobuteru Taniguchi put the Miku AMG on top of the GT300 leaderboard with a blistering 1:25.869 in the final ten minutes for GT300 runners, just 0.3 seconds away from the current lap record.
Second-quickest was the #65 Leon Cvstos AMG (Haruki Kurosawa*/Naoya Gamou) with a 1:26.060, last year’s Okayama race winners in their first practice on Bridgestones. A third Mercedes-AMG GT3 cracked the top six as well: The #111 EVA RT Test-01 Rn-sports AMG (Keishi Ishikawa*/Ryosei Yamashita) was an astonishing sixth, thanks to a great lap from newcomer Ishikawa.
Third-fastest was the #3 B-Max NDDP GT-R (Kazuki Hoshino/Mitsunori Takaboshi*), and in fourth, was the #51 JMS P.MU LMcorsa RC F GT3 (Yuichi Nakayama/Sho Tsuboi*) – with a great effort from the 21-year-old newcomer Tsuboi in the 2017-spec RC F on Bridgestones.
Fifth-quickest was the #9 Gulf NAC Porsche 911 (Kyosuke Mineo*/Jono Lester), continuing its great run of form from testing, as did the #33 D’Station Porsche (Tomonobu Fujii/Sven Müller*) in seventh.
The #10 Gainer Tanax triple a GT-R (Ryuichiro Tomita*/Hiroki Yoshida) was the fastest Dunlop car in GT300 in eighth, and in ninth, the only JAF-GT300/MC to get into the top ten, the #25 VivaC 86 MC (Takamitsu Matsui*/Kenta Yamashita), with the #88 ManePa Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Manabu Orido/Kazuki Hiramine*) completing the top ten.
In addition to the issues for the #35 Arto 86 MC 101 and the #21 Hitotsuyama Audi R8, the #61 Subaru BRZ R&D Sport (Takuto Iguchi/Hideki Yamauchi*) had a spin at turns 10 & 11, and Yamauchi could do no better than 14th on the grid.
The only car that did not complete a lap was the #7 Studie BMW M6 GT3 (Jörg Müller/Seiji Ara), which spent all morning in the garage with an electronics issue, per team principal Yasuaki Suzuki. The team was able to get the issue repaired for the subsequent Circuit Safari, so they’re likely to get a chance to qualify later this afternoon.
* = denotes driver who recorded team’s fastest lap